Books Wot I Have Read: 2018

Everybody else is doing it, so I figured I ought to jump in too. Why not? A touch of positivity is always welcome at this time of year.

Image result for sheffield university arts tower
My TBR, yesterday

Alas, my TBR pile resembles the Arts Tower of Sheffield University right now, and it’s absolutely impossible to catch up with everything that was released this year while I’ve still got so many other worlds to visit. So this round-up of the best books I’ve read over the last twelve months also includes a number that weren’t actually published this year, and I refuse to apologise for that.

In no particular order:

Under The Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng (Angry Robot, 2017)

34643773Holy heck. This is Angry Robot at its best, putting the WTF into fantasy once more, combining the detailed, refined and steady narrative of a gothic Victorian romance with the sudden sharp turns and queasy horrors of modern fiction. Jeannette Ng has created a disturbing world that resonates all the more true for the passions and obsessions its characters confront. Catherine’s arc – from Yorkshire to Gethsemane, from fragile English traveller to changeling, and beyond – is told with a sort of spellbinding quality – you want to shout and scream, and wrench her and Laon away before it is too late, and yet even when that line has been crossed you can’t help but read on and cheer their courage.

Quite probably the best treatment of the Fae since Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Graham Joyce), and that’s saying something.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2016)

Holy heck (again), this was good. A broken earth, with fractured characters, and a history that is more geology and archaeology than anything else, plus giant floating obelisks, institutionalized slavery, and a narrative device that sinks the reader deep into the heart and soul of one of the most damaged characters of all. Make no bones, this is not a comfort read. The characters herein are not heroes, they are all survivors. You might call this grimdark if that label didn’t have so many negative connotations.

22468727The City of Silk and Steel, by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, & Louise Carey (Gollancz, 2012)

A wonderful, multi-layered tale of storytellers, their stories, and a full harem of concubines who escape death during a revolution by a cult of fanatics and return to the city of Bessa to depose the cultists in turn. Told in the voices of the characters themselves, with recipes, tall tales, legends and fourth-wall-breaking meta-narratives, The City of Silk and Steel is full of action, dry wit, diplomacy, and subtle magics. I can’t believe it isn’t better known than it is.

Do yourselves a favour and search this one out, trust me, you will not regret it.

38213770The Tower of Living and Dying, by Anna Smith Spark (Harper Voyager, 2018)

If you’ve made it this far into the glorious and murderous chaos of Anna Smith Spark’s world, then you know just how fantastically she uses language, repetition, broad strokes, and needle-sharp observations to tell a story. You won’t be disappointed this time either.

In my review of the first book in the trilogy I likened Marith to one of rock’n’roll’s early pioneers, despoiling his way across a continent. Now, with Thalia at his side, he’s an analogue of Elvis in his pomp, if Elvis had ever led an army of devoted berserkers to war.

Next? Can’t wait.

Wrath, by John Gwynne (Pan, 2016)

Fair to say we’ve crowned the next generation’s David Gemmell? I reckon so: there will be a lot of future fantasists using The Faithful And The Fallen as a foundation of their own explorations into the genre.

These are all personal choices, of course. My alternate self over at SFSF is bound to be a touch more relevant…

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The Turtle Moves

Once upon a time, I worked as a classroom assistant at the Sacred Heart Primary School in Hillsborough, Sheffield. I thought I wanted to be a teacher (I was wrong, but don’t hold that against me). I discovered that it was quite difficult to do much with Y3 and below (severe lack of concentration span, loads of Sunny Delight), and Y5 and Y6 were just as difficult as they were beginning to learn to not pay any attention at all (as well as throw filched packets of condoms around the playground which, in a Catholic School, is probably the very height of anti-establishment behaviour).

So I wound up helping out in Y4. Most afternoons, half an hour before the end of the day, the teacher would read to the class. The kids would gather around and listen and, wonder of wonders, they were quiet and they enjoyed the stories.

I asked the teacher if I could choose the next book. She was a little suspicious: I wasn’t Catholic, I wasn’t one of Them, and I wrote my zeroes and sevens in “the European style” on the chalkboard (“we’re not European, we’re English!”), and she hadn’t heard of my choice of book to read. For all she knew, I could be warping their tiny, fragile minds.

Well, she was right.

The book was Truckers, the first in Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad series for younger readers. The story, if you need a quick reminder, concerns the adventures of Masklin and his fellow nomes, when they are evicted from their home under the floorboards of a massive department store. It might have been a little “advanced” for Y4, perhaps, I certainly wasn’t an expert in judging that, but I figured I could skip over any difficult bits if I really needed to.

We began. I had brought my own copy of Truckers in to read from. Masklin crossed a road, evaded predators, and helped his tribe into the back of a lorry. Y4 listened intently.

By the end of the first week, a couple of them were reading along, using copies that they had evidently sourced from the local library. By the middle of the second week, I don’t think there was a single copy of Truckers left in the Sheffield Library system. They were all here, in this classroom. We parcelled out some of the speaking roles – that was ambitious. The kids took it in turn to be Masklin and Grimma, stumbling over the printed words enthusiastically.

Those kids will be in their mid-20s now, I think. I bumped into one a few years back. He blamed me for getting him hooked on reading and hooked on fantasy.

Not my fault: that honour belongs to Terry Pratchett, I reckon. After all, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic did the same for me when they turned up in the boxes of books that my uncle left behind when he emigrated to South Africa.

Thank you, Terry.

Reading is important. It makes you think.

Pass it on, folks. Tell your children.

The turtle moves.